“Don’t we have the right to have rights?”
That’s the question playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer posed to a reporter recently, in response to California’s passage on Election Day of Proposition 8, prohibiting marriage rights between same-sex couples. The outcome triggered an outpouring of anguish and anger, as thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of San Francisco and elsewhere for days on end. Kramer’s eloquent plea says it all, posing a question asked by countless gay and lesbian Americans denied the full range of rights either offered or implied by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution over the last 250 years.
The California State Supreme Court will decide in December whether by approving a brief amendment to the state Constitution --the net result of passing Prop 8 -- California voters violated the basic Constitutional rights of those adversely affected by the measure.
Whatever the court decides, there should be no doubt as to the ultimate outcome for the issue across the board: Equal rights for gay Americans -- including the right to marry and adopt children -- will become the law of the land, whether on a painstaking state-by-state basis, or by the sweep of federal law.
And not only will these rights be granted, they will widely be taken for granted, as well.
How can one be so sure?
Because of two ineluctable historic trends that not only favor this outcome, they practically assure it.
First, the fight for gay rights is a fight for civil rights, and though Americans clearly don’t always do the right thing right away, they get there in the end. Sometimes you can chart the progress, and sometimes you can’t. It took 250 years to move from the Emancipation Proclamation to President Obama. All of the really significant progress on racial justice occurred within the last 50 years, leaving 200 years for a very slow crawl.
Second, the curve of social tolerance travels essentially only in one direction -- upward -- on the chart of American history. We’ve made serious, even tragic, missteps along the way, of course, from the eugenics movement to McCarthyism, but that has never fundamentally pushed us off course toward greater and greater acceptance of a wide range of behaviors, beliefs, and diverse social contracts.
If this assessment is entirely too upbeat for you, take a good look at the legal and social evolution of miscegenation in the United States. Laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage (or any inter-racial union) were on the books in 1661 -- and continued right up through 1967 in Virginia. These laws over time reflected equal aversion to allowing racial bloodlines to co-mingle and to economically empowering people of color through marriage. By the late 1950s, almost half the states had miscegenation laws. The very idea of racial cohabitation, let alone marriage, was not only illegal, but scandalous, revolting, beyond the pale.
We’ve since traveled a light year from that view -- and that’s the point. For those of us now in middle age, this turnabout has occurred within our lifetimes. While there are still people in this country who frown on inter-racial marriage, who are made uncomfortable by the prospect, or worse, they are decidedly neither in the majority nor the mainstream.
The fight for gay marriage rights will undoubtedly follow a similar trajectory, as people -- especially young people -- grow more accustomed to, and far more accepting of, peers who express different sexual orientations. As sexual orientation continues its slide from horror show to ho-hum, the social and legal barriers to marriage rights will fall as well. What’s more, the oft-repeated defense of exclusive heterosexual unions on religious grounds will increasingly be marginalized until it is the refuge of religious fanatics who tend to talk only to one another. Once upon a time, fired-up white preachers threatened brimstone and hellfire if a black man so much as looked at a white woman. But no more.
History is filled to the brim with tragedy and cruelty, but it also happily replete with redemption, as societies inch their way toward enlightened tolerance.
To all gays and lesbians in despair over their seemingly intractable second-class citizenship, remember the words of Bob Dylan: The times, they are a-changin’.